Ted Nesi has consulted with the State House librarian and learned that there were unanimous budget votes in 2008 and 1999. As a first impression, that means the House wasn’t due for another one for a couple of years, but it also suggests that shock at the unanimity might have been a little overblown. As somebody who tweeted that the vote was “an outrageous indicator of a very sick representative democracy,” I’d make two points.
First, I wouldn’t be at all shy about suggesting that Rhode Island’s representative democracy has been very sick for much longer than the period back to 1999.
Second, the final unanimous vote was mainly significant as the sharp edge of the entire evening. Looking at the journal from the House budget night in 2008 for contrast, a few things stand out. For one, the House didn’t wrap up until almost midnight, so it wasn’t the same quick session.
More importantly, there was some contentious drama. On a quick skim, it looks like two floor amendments actually passed by surprise, leading to reconsideration votes to change the outcome. That isn’t exactly the festival of harmony we witnessed last night. From the perspective of the electorate, at least it seemed like the system was working… somewhat.
So what about the tax cuts? Surely around $45 million in FY16 cuts, largely for businesses and Social Security recipients, is a positive development in line with what small-government conservatives have long recommended?
Yes, but expenditures from general revenue (i.e., local money) are expected to go up by $108 million versus last year’s enacted budget. From an economic standpoint, the question is whether the revenue sources that are making up for the tax cuts provide a bigger boost than the drag created by taking money out elsewhere. The governor’s budget schedule, for example, shows a $125 million increase in each of the personal income tax and the state sales tax; that’s money out of the economy, some of which will be going to hand-picked segments.
To put specifics on the argument, during FY16, the Social Security tax cut is expected to cost the state $9.3 million in revenue, which we could say is largely paid for with a new $6.9 million in taxes on small tourism businesses. Maybe this is an economically productive and morally sound transfer of wealth, but we never hear that argument.
On their own, each change might be positive, but at the end of the day, they fit into the mix in the same way special-interest handouts do. The lack of real contention in the budget debate is an indication that all of the interests that have a voice are now bought off.
What should the rest of us do?